The Moon, supporters say, can serve as a springboard to push the human exploration of the solar system, with Mars as the horizon goal. So Europe is ratcheting up what it sees as the strategic significance of the Moon by pushing forward on lunar-exploration missions that would involve both humans and robots.
Calling the effort a "comeback to the Moon," European space planners envision a series of human missions to the lunar vicinity starting in the early 2020s. Those missions, according to the plan, will include coordination between astronauts and robotic systems on the lunar surface. Robots would land first, paving the way for human explorers to set foot on the Moon later.
Europe's lunar intentions were clearly evident at an international symposium this month to discuss plans for a return to the Moon. The European Space Agency (ESA) hosted the two-day symposium, called "Moon 2020-2030 - A New Era of Coordinated Human and Robotic Exploration," on Dec. 15 at the European Space Research and Technology Center in Noordwijk, Netherlands. More than 200 scientists and space officials from 28 countries attended the meeting.
The intent of the symposium was to gain a strong common message from the representatives of the science, academic, agency and industrial communities, said Markus Landgraf, a symposium organizer and a space architecture analyst for the European Space Agency.
The message would entail "how lunar exploration can be implemented as a sustainable international endeavor, building on past successes and enabled by new partnerships," Landgraf told Space.com.
ESA already participates in the critical effort to develop human space-transportation systems for missions beyond low-Earth orbit. The space agency is providing the European Service Module to be used in conjunction with NASA's next spaceship: the Orion crew module.
Furthermore, the head of ESA, Johann-Dietrich Wörner, has repeatedly expressed his keenness for a Moon base as a successor to the International Space Station. He has stated that such a lunar base should be international, drawing upon different competencies in various countries.
U.S. astronomer Dan Lester, a consultant and telerobotics specialist, said that his big takeaway message from the ESA symposium "was that exploration telepresence is no longer an off-the-wall idea, but one that seemed to be threaded throughout the conference."
"This conference seemed to accept that it was a new way of doing exploration," Lester told Space.com. One strong recommendation that will come out of the meeting is that real analog studies will be necessary to understand how to do operations on the Moon, he added.
"Not analog operations at a moonlike sites, which can be hugely expensive just for travel, but analog operations where geologists use a real rover robot, perhaps just in a rock yard, with vision, dexterity/haptics and low latency control to do real-time field geology," Lester said.
NASA's Kathy Laurini, co-chair for the Exploration Roadmap Working Group for the Global Exploration Roadmap, also took part in the European gathering on lunar exploration.
"The symposium was very well-attended and effective in gathering community input on priorities for exploration of the moon," Laurini told Space.com.
A major topic, she said, was how humans in cislunar space - the region of space near the Moon - could contribute to lunar exploration. They could do so by working with robotic assets that demonstrated future human landing technologies and contributed information about high-priority science questions.
"The ESA space-exploration strategy sets the moon as a priority destination for humans on the way to Mars, and the recent talk of a 'Moon Village' certainly has generated a lot of positive energy in Europe … [of] Europe playing a role in a global human exploration scenario," Laurini said. It is clear, she added, that the ESA Ministerial meeting in December 2016 will be an important milestone for Europe.
"There is most definitely international interest in human missions to the Moon," said Paul Spudis, of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.
Spudis told Space.com there is recent and significant focus on the Moon, not only by Europe, but also India, Japan and China.
There are three possible paths to lunar return that Spudis can envision:
A single-nation effort, analogous to NASA's Apollo moon-landing project. China is the most likely initiator of this path.
A cooperative, international effort, analogous to the International Space Station. ESA, Japan, India and Russia are likely major participants in such an effort.
A series of commercial lunar missions, largely led by American "New Space" companies, an effort that would likely be almost totally robotic and fairly small in scope.
Source: NBC News